Why is a state’s authority to govern is always contested?

In all forms of government there is always an element of dissent and disobedience to the authority of the state.  While in totalitarian states, dissent is not tolerated and crushed as and when it happens, in the more democratic forms of government it is actually seen as a healthy sign.  If we go back in history, we find that most of the progressive legislations and grants of civil liberties have been won through hard struggle from below.  So the merits associated with democratic governance today were largely a product of grassroots struggle of the people and their contestation of the authority of the state.  So instead of looking at contestation of state power as a malign expression of social disorder, one could attribute positive conclusions about its role in the development and progress of society.  But not everyone agrees with this point of view.    Hence, it is safe to say that there is no consensus with respect to the problem of state authority and its relation to the general population.  The rest of this essay will explain why state authority is constantly contested by people and will elucidate how it will help foster social justice.

The former Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK government, Sir David King had once famously remarked that the phenomena of global warming and climate change are more dangerous than social disorder in the form of terrorism.  While Sir David King’s assessment might come across as far-fetched at first, there is proper rationale behind his views.  To state it concisely, there is elaborate empirical evidence in the form of global temperature statistics and changing weather patterns to back up King’s views, than what one could possibly come up with to present the dangers of terrorism.  And more crucially, unlike global climate change, the present governmental actions to mitigate or suppress terrorism are actually proving counter-productive, in that they are triggering off more terrorist retaliations.  King’s concerns about the UK’s security are quite relevant in discussing about state authority and governance.  For example, under the leadership of Tony Blair, the UK joined hands with the United States in launching counter-terror operations in Afghanistan and later in Iraq.  Right from the beginning of these operations, the general public in the UK and the USA were strongly against it.  This is clearly seen in the Gallup polls taken at periodic intervals for the last several years.  The same polls show that the general population is more concerned with issues of livelihood, environment (including global warming) and civil liberties.  Here is a classic case of the idea that the authority of the state to govern is always contested.  In this particular example, the actions of the Tony Blair government were not mandated by the general public, as the opinion polls clearly indicate.  It is fair to say that the legitimacy of so-called counter-terror operations were strongly called into question by the general public, both in the UK as well as the rest of the world.  While the Gallup polls showed the statistical and quantitative proof of this contestation, the public demonstrations in the form of protests and rallies in the lead-up to the War on Terror gives further credence to public displeasure toward government actions (Bromley, 2009, p.402).

Going back to the topic in question, people have a natural tendency to detest authority.  It starts from early childhood, when a child resists its parents’ control over its actions and behaviour and later takes the generalized form of resisting those in positions of authority.  While conceding that not all forms of authority are oppressive and exploitative in nature, it is also true that subordinate employees do not particularly enjoy taking orders from their superiors in office.  It is fair to say that human beings, by virtue of their self-respect and sense of dignity, do not like to relate to other human beings through skewed power relations.  This is one reason why a political philosophy such as Communism had found expression on several occasions during the twentieth century and still continues to draw attention in the academia and political debates.  Despite Communism’s practical failings, it is closely allied to Anarchism, which is founded on strong distrust of all authority (Blakeley and Saward, 2009, p.370).

The Making Social Lives text describes governing as

“the process of trying to shape, direct or rule some areas of life.  The process of governing – usually governing others – is undertaken by many sorts of agencies and groups who combine two things: a commitment to make things, or people, better (or to keep them the same in the face of threats that might make things worse) and a claim that they have the authority to bring this improvement about.  This double aspect of governing – improvement and authority – can be found in many practices of governing”. (Bromley and Clarke, 2009, p.326)

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